Benjamin Flowers

Sporting Grounds

Stadiums, soccer ones in particular, are distinct among building types in that they explicitly focus our attention on the ground—the field or pitch—where the game is played. Given the long history of the type, this is not surprising. After all, circuses and stadion—the precedents from classical antiquity for the modern stadium—were often carved from the earth itself rather than built to sit upon it. Indeed, such is the connection between the two elements we generally regard as distinct that stadia are routinely called “grounds.”

Today there are a number of stadiums and stadium projects that speak to the relationship between “building” and “ground.” As the stadium is a globally distributed phenomenon, these examples are likewise, and they reflect the particular geological, topographical, and social realities in which they are situated. What follows is hardly an exhaustive account of the more “grounded” of global stadia. Rather, it serves as an opportunity to revisit conventional wisdom both about the relationship between the built and the earth, as well as the capacities of stadia to operate at and on phenomenological terrain. Often dismissed as pragmatic, engineered-more-than-designed structures, stadia instead sit at the intersection of many of the most powerful qualities that give architecture meaning.

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Estadio Braga [2003]. Braga, Portugal. Google Earth: Image Landsat, 2016.

Estadio Braga: Braga, Portugal

A 21st century project expressive of the close relationship between ground and form is Eduardo Souto de Moura’s Estadio Braga in Portugal (2003). Situated in a former quarry, the two stands run the length of the pitch, with the northwest goal end facing a wall of stone and the southwest goal end open to a view down the hillside. The spectacle on the pitch, when a game is underway, is in direct competition with the spectacular nature of the site and it may well be that teams playing there feel their efforts are overwhelmed by the setting. The spectacle here was not about elevating the fortunes of the home club, S.C. Braga. Instead, Souto de Moura’s design, realized for the 2004 European Championship, was much more about elevating the international image of hosts Portugal (which was still under the lingering shadow of the long rule of the Estado Novo that ended 30 years earlier). Portugal saw the construction and renovation of stadia as a way to broadcast to audiences around the world that the country was now fully modern, fully a part of modern Europe. It was Estadio Braga, carved from the historic bedrock of the country, but utterly modern in its structure and form, that best illustrated how the nation and its political leaders imagined emerging from the darkness of the past.

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Estadio Janguito Malucelli [2007]. Curitiba, Brazil. Google Earth: Digital Globe, 2016.

Estadio Janguito Malucelli: Curitiba, Brazil

There are other, even more vivid examples of stadiums that powerfully emphasize the role of “ground.” The Estadio Janguito Malucelli in Curitiba, Brazil, often called the “Ecostadio,” features no concrete, and the stands are set directly into the earthen hillside flanking the pitch. The spectators occupy a ground of their own, just as the players do below. “Green” building and “sustainable” design are popular catch phrases in sport architecture at the moment, but this is rather something more: an example of a very direct, polemical effort to yoke the social practice of sport to a larger ecological agenda. There is much talk about how sport can serve such agendas, but few projects do so as simply and as economically as this one does.

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Floating Bay Stadium [2007]. Marina Bay, Singapore. Google Earth: Digital Globe, 2016.

Floating Bay Stadium: Marina Bay, Singapore
There are other examples, where ground is a point of reference by its absence. Such is the case at the Floating Bay Stadium in Marina Bay, Singapore, where the pitch is on the water and only the spectators are truly part of the “ground.” Singapore is one of the most densely populated nations in the world, and routinely undertakes efforts to expand its physical terrain by adding onto the footprint of the island by dumping earth, seabed rock, and other materials into the surrounding ocean. So this particular stadium points to Singapore’s larger political and economic ambitions, all of which its leaders imagine requires growing the amount of “ground” available for occupation. Rather than an engineering novelty, this is a piece of a much larger, aspirational nationalist project.

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Stadio Pierluigi Penzo [1913]. Venice, Italy. Google Earth: Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO, 2016.

Stadio Pierluigi Penzo: Venice, Italy

There are a number of stadia that respond to specific territorial conditions at the urban scale. One of the grittier and more interesting examples in this category is the Stadio Pierluigi Penzo in Venice. Rarely, if ever, featured in guides to this otherwise tourist-clogged city, the stadium is particularly notable for being accessible primarily by boat. Spectators and players alike move from water to building, a procession unlike that at any other ground I am aware of. Home to Venezia F.C., a club that has seen brighter days, the ritual associated with attending a game at any stadium is surely made even more impressive by the aqueous interregnum that is part of entering and exiting the ground.

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Stadion Gospin Dolac [1989]. Imotski, Croatia. Google Earth: CNES/Astrium, 2016.

Stadion Gospin Dolac: Imotski, Croatia

Surreal and surprising adjacencies define the Stadion Gospin Dolac in Croatia. Nearly invisible from the streets of the adjacent village, the stadium also borders a crater lake that lies nearly 500 m below the level of the pitch. Seating just 4,000, the stands are set into the hillside and are dwarfed by the cliffs that enclose two sides of the ground. Croatia actually has the distinction of being home to another idiosyncratic and miniscule stadium, the Igralište Batarija, sited between not one, but two historic sites: the Venetian, 15th century Kamerlengo Castle and the Tower of Saint Marco. Seating just 1,000, it might cement Croatia as the capital of stadia with a novel and unique relationship to “ground.”

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Rock Stadium [unbuilt], MZ Architects. Al Ain, Abu Dhabi. Courtesy of MZ Architects.

Rock Stadium: Al Ain, Abu Dhabi

The final example is as yet unrealized; but even as a proposition, it offers a tantalizing look at how the future of this building type might radically exploit the tension between building and ground. Sited in the desert of the city of Al Ain in Abu Dhabi, the aptly named Rock Stadium by MZ Architects proposes to burrow both stand and ground into the surrounding arid landscape. Here the stadium no longer offers a heroic elevation to approaching spectators (although precisely who would attend or use this ground remains unclear at present). Instead, a typology broadly associated with a towering mass enclosing the field of play is turned, well neither inside out or upside down, but something of both. This applies not only to the form of the stadium, but to its program as well, as there is no proper demand for such a building; nor is the climate, even when buried into the ground, suitable for outdoor sporting events for most of the year. Nor is there robust attendance at existing venues, with attendance for football matches averaging less than 4,000.


Benjamin Flowers is Associate Professor in the School of Architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His work examines architecture as a form of social activity situated within the intersecting spheres of politics, culture, and economy. Looking in particular at skyscrapers and stadiums, he focuses on the ways these structures are constructed, the ends to which they are used, and the nature of public reaction to them. His research has attracted recognition and funding from Columbia University’s Buell Center for Architecture, Cornell University’s John Nolen Fellowship, the Society of Architectural Historians, and the Hagley Museum and Library. His most recent book is Architecture in an Age of Uncertainty (Ashgate Press, 2014). His first book, Skyscraper: The Politics and Power of Building New York City in the Twentieth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), was named a 2010 Outstanding Academic Title in Architecture by Choice Magazine. Other recent publications include "Stadium Architecture, Visual Iconography, and the Shaping of Urban and Sporting Identities," in The Visual in Sport (Routledge, 2011). He is currently completing a book on stadia around the world, Sport and Architecture (Routledge, expected 2016). He is the director of Stadia Lab.